Before the final day of the World Rugby Nations Cup in Bucharest, Romania coach Lynn Howells observed that following the “disappointing performance against Namibia” in round two, about 85 percent of those involved in the title-deciding match against Argentina Jaguars were playing for a place in his Rugby World Cup 2015 squad, to be announced later on this week.
This rather unflattering comment after a 40-point win is revealing for both the progress the Romanian team has made under the Welshman, as well as a new priority in the build-up to the RWC 2015, as the focus of the Romanian players and staff has switched from results to the quality of the performance.
“It is always the same with Romania”, said the experienced coach. “The first game after the squad reconvene is always pretty disjointed, peppered with unforced errors and the players are hopelessly out of sync. They come from their clubs where the standards are pretty low and everything needs to be revised and reassembled, from skill sets to match fitness, intensity, not to mention game plans. They always made a big improvement in the second match, having spent nearly 10 days together - they are better focused, and structured and start to manufacture opportunities, but still, seem unable to finish them off,” Howells said.
“And this is what happened against Namibia, after the Spain game. On the positive side, they created opportunities and one could sense the potential of the team. But the lineout was a shambles, the decision-making was questionable to say the least and we still made too many errors. I told them we must eliminate errors, to be accurate and alert and ready to capitalise on the opportunities the game throws at us,” Howells added.
“Their performance against the Jaguars vindicated my confidence that time is of the essence in making progress with this team. The players have absorbed the criticism and produced a much better performance, mainly in the set-piece and defence. However, there is a lot left to be perfected in all areas, but at least we are done with the selection process and can concentrate on the team work."
Best prepared yet
World Rugby High Performance consultant Richie Dixon has been closely following the progress of the Romanian team since 2009.“I can say without a shadow of doubt that this is the best prepared team for a RWC tournament, since I have been working with the Romanian Federation," Dixon observed.
“The number and the standard of the players in contention for selection has gone up. There is a strong team ethic and the group is tighter and more compact as a result. One has to accept that other nations have made progress, but it is good to see that Romania is there in the mix and for that one must give credit to World Rugby for their support, the FRR for creating the stability and the framework, and of course Howells and his coaching staff, which includes defence coach Neil Kelly, forwards coach Marius Tincu, backs coach Eugen Apjoc and fitness and conditioning coach Olivier Rieg, with Horatiu Bargaunas as team manager."
Kelly will take particular pleasure in the fact that Romania did not concede a single try throughout the entire Nations Cup tournament.
“Three years ago, when I started, there was virtually no competition for places; the team picked itself, really. And there was not much beyond the top 15-16 players. Now, there is healthy competition for places and this puts us in a much better position. Because of that, the quality of the players has gone up as well,” he said.
“There is a good atmosphere in the squad and a sense of togetherness that is very important. The key to this sense of unity is the fact that this has been a generation of players for whom hard work and discipline are the norm. There are no superstars who set themselves apart and create dissension. The players work together and move forward together,” added team manager Bargaunas, a former international referee.
A number of foreign-born players have helped strengthen areas where Romania have traditionally been weak.
"The first was Otar Turashvili, who was born in Georgia and qualified to play for Romania several years ago," backs coach Eugen Apjoc pointed out."He has since become a feature of the starting Romanian front row. South-African born Randall Morrison and New Zealander Michael Wiringi have already made their debut for Romania in the Nations Cup and Johannes van Herden and Paula Kinikinilau will join the squad later on in the summer. They come from different cultural and rugby backgrounds and definitely will add value to the group."
Forwards coach Marius Tincu (pictured), who captained his country in the RWC 2011, pointed out that incremental progress was noticeable during the last three years and that the selection of the eligible foreign players has made a valuable contribution, to help refresh the somewhat stale environment of the national team.
“Some traditionalists consider the selection of foreign-born players a negative aspect, but I disagree," he said. "An injection of rugby know-how and traditions from other rugby cultures it is very good for Romanian rugby. The traditional Romanian game is based on physical contact. The players from New Zealand think and approach the game differently; those from South Africa are more physical than us, while the Polynesian players add instinct and finesse to a natural game. So we absorb all this and it should help up improve,” Tincu added.
On the evidence available, the selection of New Zealand-born, Baia Mare-based Michael Wiringi is likely to be a Godsend for the Romanian back-play, deprived for so long of a playmaker of vision.
Wiringi, who has recovered from the serious leg injury, suffered two days after his 29th birthday last year, made a promising debut for Romania against the Jaguars and is likely to feature prominently in the RWC plans of coach Howells and his team. “I am delighted to have made my international debut. I have been waiting for this moment for three years and I am very pleased with the outcome,” said Wiringi after his side's 23-0 win against the Jaguars.
Looking ahead to RWC 2015 and Pool D fixtures with France, Ireland, Italy and Canada, Howells said: “To be honest, things are moving forward nicely and I hope that our preparations are not disrupted by injury. What is pleasing is that the players are aware of the huge amount of work in front of us and are prepared to put the work in. After the Namibia match we had a long meeting, when we discussed the plans for the RWC build-up and analysed the shortcomings revealed by the game: the contact area, the lineout, game awareness and attention to detail. You name it! It was a long meeting and some hard truths have been spelled out.
“I believe we are making progress and will be ready by the time RWC kicks off in England. We will announce the 38-strong RWC squad shortly after which we are taking a 10-day break. After that we will reconvene for a 10-day camp at Caile Gradistei in the mountains, where we will be joined by the players from France. From there on we will alternate camps with brief breaks, until August when we go on a short tour of England and Scotland, where we plan to play two matches. We will be back in the country at the beginning of September, when we play Tonga in our last match before we leave for London,” Howells added.